The subject matter of a contemporary art photograph is usually easy to identify: whether it is a petrol station, a seascape, or a man with a hyena on a leash, we can usually name it. It is possible to take the work at face value – to assume that what is shown is the most important feature. But to insist on reading photographs literally is to miss out on a tremendous richness of ideas, especially in work made over the past few decades. Photographs communicate meaning in all sorts of different ways, with subject matter being only the most obvious. This chapter is designed to open up works to richer interpretations, in dialogue with those of makers, critics and historians. For after all, don’t we want photographs to be able to do more than just point to things in the world that remind us of something we already know?
Art photographers have frequently used genres from painting, such as portraiture, still life or landscape, to trigger a sense of recognition and kick off viewers’ process of interpretation. In our current era of eclecticism, many photographers now employ hybrid forms of recognizable genres, working against the grain of their original purpose and meaning. The resulting images have a seductive surface layer that operates like modernist photography, underpinned by layers of conceptual subtext. This chapter examines portraiture as a case study of this approach. It focuses on works that foreground the human figure, playing off the expectations of portraiture while overlapping with other art genres such as the nude and non-art genres such as soft-core pornography, fashion photography and the snapshot. As well as fascinating faces and figures, these works by Zoe Crosher, Katy Grannan, Collier Schorr, and Zanele Muholi draw on key strategies from conceptual and postmodern art to generate a deliberate ambiguity that is decidedly contemporary. The discussion will encompass three flashbacks to key moments in the history of art that have become particularly relevant to contemporary art photography: Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, the conceptual art of the 1960s and the postmodern art of the 1980s.
Genres are the sets of codes used to identify and classify different forms of cultural production including literature, painting and film.1
They operate as containers for content. Each genre offers conventions within which artists and writers can produce works that audiences will know how to decipher. Rule-bound, genres are inherently academic; they are discussed primarily in the
teaching and evaluation of art forms. Yet audiences recognize genres without any special training or effort. As we flip channels on the television it takes only a split second to identify the clichés of a soap opera, a game show or a western. In a culture obsessed with novelty, we might think that old-fashioned genres would fall by the wayside, to be replaced by entirely new forms. In fact, artists have returned to familiar genres again and again, both to satisfy the expectations of viewers and also to smash them.2
In either case, the very notion of genre implies a relationship of complicity between the viewer and artist or reader and writer. Genres are also a way of entering into dialogue with history: the artist does not make them up but borrows them from the prevailing culture and from the history of their art form. Combining two or more genres into a hybrid form is an immediate way to introduce complexity to the work, inviting the viewer to connect the work to other ideas in the culture.
The main focus of traditional portraiture is the individual, the person depicted. The portrait is a site of identification and projection, inviting us to relate ourselves to the person or people in the image. We know that a portrait captures a person in just one of their many possible states, and we judge artists in part by their ability to select a representative face for the individual. Portraits can be particularly effective in a series, as when a court painter developed a long-term relationship with a particular monarch (as with Diego Velázquez and King Philip IV of Spain) or when a photographer works repeatedly with a family member or lover (as in the case of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe). Art historian Richard Brilliant describes portraits as purposeful constructions that present a particular proposition about a person, aiming to elicit a psychological response from the viewer. While it is helpful if the portrait offers recognizable aspects of sitters’ appearance, it is even more important that it offer a sense of their social identity, a sense of what they are “like.”3
The success of a traditional portrait thus rests on its ability to stand in for the person, for the way we see them in the present, and the way we will remember them in the future. We know from experience how easy it is to take a picture that fails
to capture the essence of a person. Postmodern theories of identity reject the idea of essence altogether, proposing that identity is a more constructed, patchwork project.4
The portraits in this chapter oscillate back and forth between notions of fixed and fractured identity. On the one hand, they present us with identities that are being constructed and performed before our very eyes. At the same time, these contemporary works retain a kind of faith in the ability of a photographic portrait – even (and perhaps especially) a snapshot portrait – to capture aspects of subjective experience.
Snapshots lie at the heart of “The Reconsidered Archive of Michelle duBois,” a particularly slippery portrait project by American artist Zoe Crosher. From 2008 to 2011, Crosher developed a composite portrait of a woman called Michelle duBois, a flight attendant and part-time escort in the 1970s and 1980s. Over numerous exhibitions and a set of artist’s books, Crosher has drawn on an archive of vintage amateur images and memorabilia which she claims to have been given by duBois herself.5
The artist presents items from the archive in
a variety of ways, often re-photographing them, framing them and arranging them in groups. Several aspects of the story are plausible; the images themselves are convincingly intimate, sleazy and varied. They show a young woman performing her femininity and sexual availability in a catalogue of ways. In Crosher’s blown-up re-presentations of Polaroids and other period formats we see duBois in flamboyant outfits, wearing wigs and make-up, squeezing her upper arms inwards to enhance her cleavage and pressing herself up against a series of male companions.
The project has disturbing aspects that disrupt the voyeuristic pleasure of looking at someone else’s personal snapshots. For example, in the “Polaroided” series, the skin of duBois’s companions has been blacked out crudely. In images such as Looking Away
), the ink covers up the male figure’s individual identity and also his race. Crosher offers no explanation for this defacement. We have no way of knowing whether, for example, the gesture reflects a desire to preserve the anonymity of the man, to diffuse duBois’s memory of a failed love affair or merely to heighten the visual impact of the image.
Although, in theory, amateur photographers have total freedom in their image-making, in practice, snapshots tend to fall into very predictable types. DuBois appears to be a very colorful character, yet the images that record her life have the repetition and cliché characteristic of the amateur snapshot, a form French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes as “stilted, posed, rigid and contrived.”6
Paradoxically, the very familiarity and predictability of snapshots is what makes them read as authentic. With its familiar pose and unremarkable setting, Looking Away
has the feeling of a genuine snapshot, a moment drawn from the everyday life of a couple. The blacked-out face and arm of the male figure inject a sinister ambiguity, all the more ambiguous because we do not know if the gesture belongs to duBois or Crosher.
If the images Crosher presents are convincingly snapshot-like, other aspects of the duBois project suggest that we are dealing with a fictional character. DuBois looks so different from image to image that we cannot even be certain she is always the same person. She has a number of pseudonyms, which are presented in a set of signatures forged by Crosher. The costume changes and postures in the images are strongly reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s famously staged self-portraits. And, indeed, Crosher’s previous work has involved constructed identities and has played explicitly on Sherman’s fictions. Whether or not the duBois archive is genuine, this is a very strange portrait. Rather in the way that we learn about celebrities through a medley of media sources, we can only develop interest or empathy for duBois in small snatches. Our sense of duBois as a person is fragmented, schizophrenic. DuBois is largely overshadowed by Crosher in her combined role as curator, archivist, artist and fan. The project as a whole is shot through with an acute self-consciousness, manifested in the details of Crosher’s re-photographing, enlarging, cropping and campy titling (another series of Polaroids of duBois with various men is entitled “Obfuscated Mae West and the 1,001 Knights”).
Subtexts and backstories
How ever did art photography get so evasive in its interpretation and open in its ethics? How did it come to rely so heavily on stories about what the photographer does or intends? How did ambiguity come to be seen as desirable? These are some of the key features of much contemporary art photography; while it has clearly available subject matter, it also has a conceptual subtext, usually reliant on the promotional writing that surrounds its presentation and the critical writing around its reception. The relationship between these texts and the images is loose – the viewer has to go and find them in order to read them – but is indispensable to the full appreciation of the work. It is taken for granted in contemporary practice that we may need to read around the work to understand it. For example, we would now be surprised to enter a museum exhibition that did not have both introductory text panels and wall labels for individual works. More perplexingly, it is common for important background information to be held in a kind of limbo-zone, accessed, for example, only
through conversation with a gallery assistant or by scouring the footnotes of catalogue essays. There is little written about this paradoxical state of affairs, in which the ideas that circulate around art photography are both necessary for interpretation and yet frequently difficult to access. This is one of the most important and underexplored aspects of contemporary practice.
Autonomy vs. contingency
Clearly, this was not always the case. In modernist art photography, prevalent from the 1910s through to the 1970s, photographers made particularly active use of formal elements of picture-making, such as point of view, arrangement of elements within the frame and printing techniques, to nuance the subject matter of their images. Although such artistry was understood to contribute to the value of the image, it was usually regarded as inseparable from the self-explanatory content (as in Ansel Adams’s sublime western landscapes). Modernist art photographs were meant to be autonomous, that is, to stand alone, without need for extra information. This is not to say that modernist images do not benefit from interpretation – photographic criticism came into its own in the modernist period – but the prevailing paradigm under modernism was that the best art photographs were entirely self-sufficient.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s approach exemplifies this interest in the autonomy of modernist photographs. Cartier-Bresson took many of his photographs as a professional photojournalist, reporting on conditions and events around the world in multi-image picture-stories. Yet he regularly republished single images from these stories in anthologies with little or no captioning, elevating them in the process from a context of journalism to art.7
In his writing, Cartier-Bresson argued that people, places and events could best be understood through elegant patterns of light and dark shapes, and that at their best such images could capture the truth of situations without need for further explanation: “Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself.”8
How did work like Crosher’s come to deviate so much from this mid-century model of photographic value, to embrace open-ended seriality, multiplicity and internal contradictions? Contemporary artists using photography usually draw less on the history of their medium than on theories and practices from twentieth-century avant-garde art more broadly. While autonomy was celebrated within the art-for-art’s-sake model of modernism, avant-garde movements throughout the twentieth century focused specifically on undermining autonomy in order to reconnect art and life with various levels of shock, challenging art as an institution and attempting to change the way viewers understood the experience of looking at art.9
Three developments in this history are particularly pertinent to contemporary photography and bear looking at in some detail: Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, the uses of photography in conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s and the notion of textuality embraced in postmodern art of the late 1970s and
1980s. Each of these moments challenged the autonomy of art in a different way, proposing that artists and audiences view artworks as contingent on the way in which they are presented and interpreted. While contemporary art photographers do not necessarily reference these historical precedents explicitly, they rely on them to legitimate their work and to ensure that ambiguities are read as desirable complexity rather than as indec...